Category Archives: Art
Dean Whiteside studied at the University of Music and Preforming Arts, Vienna, and has an deep interest in re-integrating music theory with materialism.
C. Derick Varn: The debates on aesthetics and Marxism have often been framed in terms of visual arts and in terms of music. This, perhaps, is the legacy of Adorno. Do you see Adorno as a primary entry point to Marxist musicology?
Dean Whiteside: It is not enough to say that Adorno was partial to music. For Adorno, the mutual dependency between musical and critical thinking cuts both ways. For this reason, many of Adorno’s deepest thoughts work through the relation between music and conceptual thinking. Adorno claims that German music and philosophy constituted a single system since the time of Kant and Beethoven. Adorno has a critical take on this relationship. His method is deeply historical and sensitive to the ways in which music embodies the antagonisms of bourgeois capitalist society, especially its fissures and points of non-identity. Left at that, Adorno would be suggesting merely another way to think about the relationship between music and society. But his inquiry is deeper: he wants to interrogate the social truth content of music itself. Music does not lie outside of capital, nor does it provide a safe haven from instrumental reason, but it also isn’t reducible to them: it’s a mode of thinking about what is contradictory and unarticulated within the world. Through music we discover the possibility of thinking about thought insofar as thought finds itself sublated within musical form, often through the concepts and signs which have the most authority over us, especially basic ones like repetition and self-identity. Thought is saved from the fate of merely smashing its face repeatedly against a mirror: its redemption lies in the broken and bloody shards on the floor—music, if you will (certainly Neue Musik). Conceptual thinking then faces the burden of making sense of its own broken image. The anxiety which neue Musik causes us is that we don’t recognize ourselves in the fragments. Thought’s return to itself must overcome a moment of mis-recognition. Many listeners don’t get past the initial: “Wtf, that’s not me!” Their reaction is wrong but understandable. Obversely, Adorno wants to problematize the moment of false recognition that bourgeois listeners experience while listening to Mozart or Beethoven. Adorno insists that Beethoven’s music is Hegelian philosophy in a truer form than Hegel’s philosophy itself could ever be. This is not an analogy. He maintains that although we can no longer write music like Beethoven, we should still think and act like Beethoven’s music. This amounts to an ideal of praxis which I think Adorno himself only occasionally lives up to. His failings are usually on the side of musical theory, namely a simplistic understanding of tonality and harmony. So to answer your question, yes and no.
C.D.V.: An unusual focus has been placed on Adorno’s critique of Jazz, particularly denouncing it as Eurocentric or ascetic, but what do you think the real issues were at hand in his critique of popular music and do you think they are relevant now?
D.W.: I think Adorno’s argument has often been taken out of context and used for ideological ends. This text is often attacked as representative of intellectual elitism, Eurocentrism, and even white supremacy. Even if Adorno was not knowledgeable about the object of his criticism—it’s not clear what “jazz” or “pop” he was actually exposed to—it’s not our task to replicate his tastes or defend his ignorance, but to understand the logic of his critique. We should not take for granted the fracturedness of a society in which Boulez and Britney Spears co-exist, both produced within late capitalism and symptomatic of it in different ways. It is a condition of our historical moment that Boulez is incomprehensible to most people and Britney Spears accessible to many more. We should abjure the false choice between an elitist, top-down modernism or a populist, bottom-up mass art. According to this logic, you’re either an elitist or a man of the people. Our first critical move should not be to unreflectively choose one side or the other, but to step back and assess the political and socio-historical conditions which produce this false choice: their co-existence reflects our antagonistic historical condition. To claim that all “high art”is inherently superior is a reflex of elitism. There are bad 12-tone pieces just as there are thoughtful pop songs. It’s clear that Adorno limited his inquiry to formally complex or resistant artworks; we shouldn’t necessarily follow suit. A danger of the culture industry is that it reproduces the ruling ideology and seals off its products from critical engagement. One sees this in the injunction not to think implicit in the claim: “Hey, it’s just a song!”
It’s possible that Adorno underestimated the extent to which the re-circulation of our needs and desires by mass media in the service of capital would become an essential way of navigating our alienated way of life. We all crave some niche of popular culture, whether it’s Hollywood or MTV, and we shouldn’t (always) feel guilty about that. It’s not the case that all consumers of mass media are mindless drones; it’s also true that mainstream pop bands can write interesting stuff. So although Adorno sometimes over-emphasized the side of production and neglected the particularity of individual art objects, especially pop ones, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Adorno left us useful tools to help formulate a materialist critique of music.
C.D.V.: What do you see as the explicit foundations for such a materialist critique of music?
D.W.: I don’t think the conditions can be made explicit. This would amount to a set of axioms or prescriptions about how to to critique music, which I’d like to avoid. We need more than a historicist account which merely reports in a putatively objective way on the historical or socio-political contexts of a work’s production and reception. Some musicology locates relationships of patriarchy, ideology, or biopower within music itself. We should be grateful that these approaches have criticized and undermined the authority of the work concept, brought to light music’s dependence on history and culture, and made us aware that musical meaning is constituted inter-subjectively and not only within musical texts themselves. We should reject the crude rebuttal that these approaches have a “political agenda” or that we should return to an essentialist or ahistorical critique of music.
That being said, I think the historicist approach is neither political enough nor properly historical. Too often it assumes that our own historical position is privileged and outside of history. Sometimes it abjures formal or syntactical analysis of musical texts completely, claiming that to refer to an autonomous text is formalistic and disassociated from history and culture. This is wrong. Texts speak mutely in a language whose intentions were always already negated by the culture which made them homeless. Insofar as music works to make its objectless intentions convincing, it becomes ambiguous at its moment of blinding clarity (Ask a music lover to articulate what she’s feeling at the end of Mahler 9 or Götterdämmerung; her tongue-tied, stammering inarticulateness is evidence, rather than disproof, of the certainty and integrity of her emotional response). Therefore, critique as a mere way of explaining social practices or drawing historical connections is not only insufficient but violent: it uses the positivity of historicity to bring music back into a world to which it never belonged. It reconciles music to its place in history. Music as a symptom of bourgeois capital is historical precisely in its not belonging to history. Often it inherits the future of a past which went unfulfilled (Brahms or Mahler); at other times, it looks toward a future in which that past will finally be buried and done with (Berlioz or Stockhausen). Only in rare cases, say Max Reger, is it interested in the present.
It seems like I’ve only offered ways not to critique. So here’s another one: critique which refers formally to a necessary link between theory and practice without offering any material to that dialectic (as it seems I’m doing now). So I have no easy formulations. I think critics (and performers) should start with the music which moves them and try to articulate their subjective responses. Critiquing music well means first caring about it: without this, one is merely regurgitating an academic discourse. There is Truth in music, and a formal understanding of music’s surface, of its thwarted intentions, is often the best way to grasp the truth of the world it failed to realize.
C.D.V.: Are you at all concerned over anti-aesthetic sentiments in the left (such as in Anti-Nietzsche by Malcolm Bull)? Do you think the radicalization of art has pushed us away at the radicalization of aesthetics?
D.W.: What does concern me is the tendency of today’s left to use aesthetic spectacle as a substitute for political action. The overestimation of the role of art is symptomatic of a failed or even non-existent politics. Occupy Wall St, for example, used art to put forward its explicit political message, often through catchy slogans on banners and video projections. First, the politics which is espoused in these spectacles of cultural resistance is usually tepid and simplistic. Often it asks people to wake up and change their subjective attitude towards the System, or the Man, as if the political issue at stake were one of “attitude.” Second, the attempt of performance art to synthesize art and politics is itself flawed and symptomatic of our lacking a real politics. Today at 3:30 we enjoy our symptom for two hours, we take part in an onanistic community of solidarity, and then we go home. It’s a symptom of our historical condition that politics becomes spectacle so quickly in the absence of authentic political organization. Spectacle, attempting to be the re-presentation of politics, actually functions as its end station, taking a political moment which failed to actualize itself in the world and re-inscribing it within a self-enclosed realm with clearly delineated boundaries, a beginning and an end. Our political failures migrate to spectacle when their claims can no longer be pressed within the world. Spectacle is where politics goes to die, but it is celebrated within these pageants as vibrant and thriving.
We should note that the form of this art is always fun and comprehensible. Its form, as such, is incidental, and the content it represents is independent of it—independent of representation, which is to say that it’s not artistic form at all. What is the alternative? I’m not advocating formalist or autonomous art, per se, either: this seems moot as well, though perhaps in more redeemable ways.
C.D.V.: Has Guy Debord affected any of your approaches to musicology?
D.W.: Not explicitly, no.
C.D.V.: What kind of politics can we extract from popular music at the moment?
D.W.: I’m interested in the form of this question. It suggests that the critic’s job is to look at a musical work, tease out its underlying social content, and transpose that content into a set of political prescriptions. Who is performing that task, and for whom? Sometimes the task is quick easy when a piece has an obviously unsavory or reactionary political content. Locating its political content serves as a way of avoiding thinking any further about it: we call something “kitschy” or “regressive” or even “disgusting,” which can also carry a political judgment, and are absolved from having to interact with it anymore. These concepts function like “homeless person”–they ask us to pass over the object in question once we have identified it as such. It’s fair to say that sometimes this is called for, like a piece named “Pussy be Yankin.” The politics one can extract is clear enough from the title.
The same process is much more difficult for thoughtful pieces of music, which I don’t think should be categorized according to “pop” or “classical.” Utopian music advocates a clear-headed egalitarian politics and is wrong precisely for its clarity and certainty. Adorno writes that “Authentic expression probably only exists as the expression of negativity, of suffering.” Art renounces substantive and affirmative being and takes refuge in shadowy form, and for this reason its most powerful claims are mute and covert, rather than political or didactic. Art is able, remarkably, to survive within our historical condition–we shouldn’t underestimate this feat–and continue to have an impotent sort of power over us. Webern, not a pop composer by any measure, does not offer a politics. The music embodies domination and totalization as well as reflectiveness and profundity. Webern’s mute, lonely speech, elusive and alienated from purposeful articulation, persists spectrally. This is reflective of our political condition but indicative of an absence, rather than presence, of real politics. Art which affirms a politics or Weltethos–usually one entails the other–should set off alarm bells.
Thinking about art always comes after the fact, after art has already represented the world. Critique should first make sense of art’s own representation, rather than impose its own. Art and philosophy are both types of thinking, which is to say forms of representation, but they are distinct, although not wholly irreconcilable. The best critique about music is musical, much like the best music is rigorously conceptual.
C.D.V.: What do make of many non-Frankfurt school influenced Marxists who would say this is letting idealism in through an aesthetic back door?
D.W.: Good, I’ll refer to the argument between Adorno and Lukacs as a way of addressing this issue. Lukacs was opposed to avant-garde literature insofar as it depicted the ruptures and discontinuities which define the consciousness of bourgeois subjects. He felt that this distorted image of individual experience was conflated with reality itself, thus amounting to idealism. This argument is grounded in Lukacs’s Hegelian reading of Marx. He argues that Marx put Hegelian philosophy into practice by showing how the relationship between universal and particular finds expression in the commodity form, which he claims represents the most extreme form of abstraction within capitalist production. Unlike the vulgar economists who remain enclosed by their abstract, fetishized world, a Marxist critique—and here is where art comes in as well—looks at the total process of social reproduction. So art for Lukacs must dig deep and express the social content of the world as it actually is; it’s insufficient to merely depict the network of abstract relations which constitute the surface of society. Merely describing the state of mind of bourgeois subjects (stream of consciousness, for example), amounts to a fragmentary and chaotic, therefore undialectical perspective on social reality.
For Adorno, Lukacs misunderstands the way in which social reality is represented. Reality is not directly accessible to our consciousness. The content of artworks is not real in the same way reality is (in fact, it’s realer). Adorno writes: “If this distinction is lost, then all attempts to provide a real foundation for aesthetics must be doomed to failure.” Adorno grants that art exists in the world, that is has a function in that world, and that the two realms have strong mediating links; however, “as art it remains the antithesis of that which is the case.” Regarding idealism, he claims: “It is no idealistic crime for art to provide essences, ‘images’; the fact that many artists have inclined towards an idealist philosophy says nothing about the content of their works.”
One can explain the tendency towards idealism in Adorno by what he understands as the non-identity between consciousness and social reality. Reality is not empirical: it’s inseparable from the concepts we use to describe it, and these concepts are socially mediated. Adorno’s dialectical method means to interrogate the social content inherent in these concepts, not to observe the world as it actually exists–that’s impossible. Materialism can only be reached by boring through idealism, by subjecting our own concepts to critique so that we might finally understand and return to them. Put more politically: the transformation of material reality will only occur through a breakthrough in self-consciousness.
Social reality for Adorno is always already mediated within art. So consider Lukacs’s claim that a stream of consciousness novel is undialectical insofar as regresses to the individual’s immediate experience; No, Adorno says, through this, an image of the object is absorbed into the subject, which amounts to a synthesis between subject and object. This type of literature—and Adorno was a supporter of avant-garde literature, especially Beckett—keeps the object from merely persisting out in the world in a state of reification. From this arises an important contradiction between the actual, unreconciled object in the world, and the object which has been mediated by a subject. A negative form of knowledge is born from this contradiction which makes critique possible. So aesthetic distance from the world is essential for Adorno’s form of critique; mere “portrayal” of social reality, as he thinks Lukacs means it, is undialectical.
C.D.V.: Why do you think there are so many heirs to Lukacs argument?
D.W.: I don’t want it to seem that I’m dismissing Lukacs by giving Adorno the last word, although we do have to admit that he was limited as an art theorist. The return to a Lukacsian model advocated by Jameson, for example, tries to address art’s changing relationship to capital. If Lukacs’s theory, according to his critics, offers a closed and integrated totality,a layover of German idealism, within which artworks are bound to un-dialectically representing the world, the alternative, call it the avant-garde, focuses instead on the ruptures within experience, mirroring, so to say, the cracks and breakdowns which are internal and essential to the reproduction of capital. Jameson claims that within late capitalism these avant-garde techniques of rupture and estrangement have become appropriated by the culture industry, even becoming the mode through which we’re reconciled as fragmented subjects to capitalism. I’m thinking of the ways in which music videos and TV shows, for example, often utilize sophisticated techniques derived from formally radical artworks. What follows from this is the thought that we need to return to a form of totality in the precise Lukacsian sense, to return to a realism which articulates and makes transparent moments of class struggle. I think we would need to more closely interrogate the concept of “totality” at work in Jameson. I don’t think it withholds critical scrutiny. That being said, I’m not sure that there are as many heirs to Lukacs’s argument as you indicate, Jameson being the most notable that I’m aware of.
C.D.V.: Is there any music criticism that seems to you in line with your view of materialist musical critique?
D.W.: Sure. There is plenty of very intelligent musical criticism out there, much of which unfortunately seems destined for the academy. I like Jonathan Neufeld’s work because it tries to engage with concrete musical practices, although in political terms I think he situates his theory too much in relation to democracy and not enough in relation to capital. As a practicing musician, rather than a theorist, it’s important to me that criticism contribute to musical praxis. I think interesting and provocative performances can also do this, provoking dialogue about musical works in order to keep them from becoming ossified. This depends on listeners who are able to critically engage with what they’re hearing. So I like thinkers who write musically, which includes such divergent types as Peter Kivy, Susan McClary, Michael Rose, and Charles Rosen. I like Badiou’s writing about music, especially Wagner; one really senses that he loves it; Zizek, less so. Music is hard to talk about because it’s essentially abstract, and arguments about its meaning have kept music criticism in a self-critical state, with disagreements still occurring over basic ontological definitions which have long been assumed in other fields of art. This might explain the relative paucity of Marxist musical criticism. Music’s abstractness, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. Music’s difficulty, its opaqueness and resistance to thinking, are qualities which Adorno prized. These traits should be viewed as holding dialectical potential for critique.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
D.W.: I suspect that the philosopher’s anxiety over ending well is surpassed only by the musician’s. Modern composers face the problem of how to end a piece without providing closure or affirming the identitarian nature of being. The quiet, open-ended coda has become almost a cliche of modern music. Conversely, philosophy’s inhibitions over ending affirmatively rarely hinder it from doing just that. I hope I haven’t suggested any party line about the right or wrong way to think about music. What I’m encouraging is an approach which does not consider its subject of critique as standing outside of the form in which it is being theoretically considered. This means that thinking about music is not merely a conceptual but also a mimetic process. In performing this, thinking must confront what is non-identical and other to thought. In this sense, authentic philosophy relies on art. Music’s survival as a social practice is in turn bound up in talking about it. It’s a shame that musicians and critics are so often indifferent to how their colleagues feel about music. Let’s be more interested in this personal level: often this is the best way to start a conversation.
Laird Samuel Barron is an award winning author and poet, much of whose work falls within the horror, noir, and dark fantasy genres. He has also been the Managing Editor of the online literary magazine Melic Review. He lives in Olympia, Washington.
C.Derick Varn: You are one of the few writers that works in poetry and weird fiction, what do you see as the relationship between weird fiction and poetry?
Laird Barron: Poetry is the atom that underlies all writing. A few years ago I concentrated my efforts solely on poetry and in doing so became a better prose stylist. It’s not clear to me that it could work so well in reverse. There’s a profound connection between poetry and the weird–some of the great stories are poems: The Ballad of Sam Magee by Robert Service; Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge; EA Poe’s The Raven; or any number of poems by Dunsany, Lovecraft, or Clark Ashton Smith. Hell, look at the ancient classics such as Beowulf. Poetry and the weird share a circulatory system.
C.D.V.: Do you think horror fiction demands a particularly poetic bend for genre fiction?
L.B.: I scrupulously avoid prescriptions. Many of the great authors of the macabre have succeeded with an unadorned prose style. Nonetheless, give me the baroque decadence of Michael Shea or Wilum Pugmire; the brutal lyricism of Livia Llewellyn and Joe Lansdale; or the rough and tumble stream of consciousness that emits from Stephen Graham Jones. Lyricism is the sinew of my favorite work.
C.D.V.: Are there any habits of a poet that can inhibit a fiction writer?
L.B.: On the contrary, my time as a poet steeled me for a career in prose. I find the discipline and the relative economy of poetic expression to have taught me a set of skills and best practices applicable to fiction and essay writing. The essential lesson of poetry being that every word must have weight. Making those few words count is exacting, and that’s not a bad takeaway for any kind of writer.
C.D.V.: What particular poets have had an effect on your prose?
L.B.: I don’t know if anyone has directly influenced my style, but several poets inspire me in abstract ways: Mark Strand; James Dickey; Anne Sexton; Charles Simic; Wallace Stevens; Ted Hughes…
C.D.V.: Do you find that you organize your books of short stories along any of the themic principles that poets often use for books of poems?
L.B.:No, although it’s a concept I’ve toyed with over the years. It might be something to revisit if I were to produce an omnibus of stories down the road.
C.D.V.: What has attracted you specifically to go back to cosmic horror so much in your writing career?
L.B.: The notion that mankind is tiny and insignificant against the backdrop of the cosmos is alluring and terrifying. The possibility that sentient life might exist amid that empty space only sharpens the attraction. Cosmic horror is analogous to leaning over a guardrail and peering into the mists of a gulf. Lovecraft’s influence is a culprit, and so too various religions with their depictions of vast and dreadful gods of stick figures. Possibly my thousands of miles traveling by dog team across Alaska sealed it. The landscape up there is immense and inhospitable. You can’t cross the Farewell Burn, or Norton Sound, or plod among the ancient, rounded slopes along the Innoko River without being conscious of your transient mortality. In such places a man is little more than a moving speck. It is probably inevitable that I’d be compelled to communicate that experience through the lives of my characters.
C.D.V.: Is this the same sentiment that makes place so important in your work?
L.B.: Yes. It’s also a manifestation of my reading habits in youth. The landscape as a character is something a number of my favorite authors featured–Howard, Lovecraft, L ‘Amour, Blackwood, Burroughs…
L.B.: My latest collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All will be released in April. I’m working on several projects. These include another collection, this one featuring stories set in Alaska; and a crime novel. Thank you for the interview.
Benches, chairs, rocketships
James Kopf recently alerted my attention to an article by Emily Badger addressing “The Humble Public Bench,” on the redesign of a number of public benches in Boston. “Benches: the new chair?” he asked.
What follows are a few thoughts in response to this question.
Above, one can see the benches mentioned in the article. The sleek, aerodynamic appearance of the benches Badger describes is something I’m oddly familiar with, having worked in an office building down at 1 State Street in Manhattan. Outside the entrance to South Ferry, the nearest Metro station, there are a number of benches working along the same modular lines, albeit in a slightly more distended, elongated form. Every time I’d exit the subway walking toward the grim black tower where our office was located, I’d pass them:
In either case, the author of the article briefly glosses the social and ideological role played by benches in the urban built environment. It’s a serviceable enough treatment, even if it slips into rather shallow moralizing toward the end:
The public bench has long been a mediator between cities and their citizens. A pleasant, functional park seat communicates to pedestrians that they’re welcome to linger, to treat public spaces like communal living rooms. Just as often, though, cities have been accused of deploying intentionally uncomfortable street furniture, angular benches with unnecessary guardrails dividing them to dissuade homeless loiterers and overnight guests. This second class of benches communicates something quite the opposite to residents: Move along, you’re not welcome here.
Certainly, there is something more to the communitarian ethos Badger leans on here than she lets on. Perhaps it’s the case however, that this is more indicative of a bygone nineteenth- and early twentieth-century liberalism (such as Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City movement) that valued public works and artificially-engineered enclaves of “nature” breaking up the stark perpendicularity of the modern metropolis. To be sure, this was a progressive sentiment in its day. But today it’s all too often just a forlorn glance cast back at a time before predatory neoliberalism came and swept it all away — leaving all but the swankiest park facilities in various un-upkept states of disrepair and neglect. Read the rest of this entry
Daniel Spaulding is a graduate student in the Department of the History of Art, Yale University. He works on postwar and contemporary art in Western Europe. With Jaleh Mansoor and Daniel Marcus he coauthored a response to a questionnaire on Occupy Wall Street for a special issue of the journal October in the fall of 2012. (http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/OCTO_a_00122)
Daniel Spaulding: It’s senseless to answer this question except with reference to concrete instances of relations between the two. I’m not interested in defining the role of art in bourgeois society as such in the manner of, say, Peter Bürger. At the same time real instances of the interface between art and politics are unquestionably determined by the general forms of capitalist society – the commodity, the wage, exchange, and so on. From this basis one can indeed claim to deduce the category of art from the determinations of the value-form or more broadly from the whole complex of relations that make up the capitalist mode of production. The role of a Marxist art history as opposed to a Marxist aesthetic theory, however, must be to mediate between form-determination and form itself, between category and material artifact.
In that spirit I’m also going to be a bit unsatisfying and refuse to give a programmatic answer to your question. I will venture to say that the standard modes of “critical” post-60s art won’t cut it. This seems widely acknowledged even in the bastions of that very model: see for instance recent meditations on the “postcritical” impulse and the failure of the “anti-aesthetic” in journals like October and Texte zur Kunst. I’m afraid lot of this is just chewing the cud of “left” art history’s academicization. The impasse is real, however.
The vital question is how to articulate the totalizing impulse of critique – which I’d argue is still as important as ever, in the face of capitalism’s own totalizing force – with a poiesis necessarily fixated on the smallest point of ingress to the materiality of everyday life, or to put it differently, the smallest unit of affect or event in its difference from a reified situation. Art small-a. I’d be willing to bet that a materialist lyric mode is the closest thing to an avant-garde we currently possess. It’s no longer very interesting to say: “Look, I’ve divested myself of my subjectivity, I’ve laid bare the mechanism through critical mimesis, I’ve taught the petrified social forms to dance by singing them their own song.” Better for artists to ask: “How can I make something that speaks to my experience in all its fucked-upness and seeming inevitability; how can I produce anything at all without immediately reproducing capital; what representational or anti-representational claims can I make with regard to my own place in the violent hierarchy of class society?” But this is a kind of lyric that opens onto epic to the extent it necessarily folds totalization back into subjectivity, or history into experience.
Art is able to do this in ways that exceed the resources of critique alone. By doing so artistic practices conceived on this model also help get us beyond the antinomy of committed versus autonomous art. Art’s autonomy instead consists in its asymptotic approach to an autonomy of the social, that is, to communism. Whether this means a sublation of art into life or something quite different is not the most interesting question at this moment in history.
C.D.V.: You have written on the aesthetics of insurrectionism and communization in Occupy: do you see part of Occupy’s appeal as aesthetic?
D.S.: I think its appeal may have been aesthetic in the older and broader sense of the term. Occupy had a visceral sensory impact on the ground and even in its circulation through the image-world. Occupiers sometimes talk nostalgically about the distinctive smell at the camps. There’s obviously a danger of romanticizing this, but I think it’s right to say that Occupy among other things offered a glimpse of a different sensorium, that is, of a world in which matter and form are ordered not by the logic of capital but rather in the immediate reproduction of communal life. Of course Occupy’s world was precarious and frequently miserable, but in that, too, I think it was probably an accurate preview of what a break with capital will really entail.
This is a slightly different matter than the “aesthetics of insurrectionism and communization,” whatever such might be. (I’d like to keep the two terms separate, by the way. You can certainly have insurrection without communization, but whether you can have communization without insurrection is another question.) In the October piece I wrote with Jaleh Mansoor and Daniel Marcus we made a rather coded swipe at what we called the “aestheticizers of autonomy.” By this we meant, for example, artists or artist-collectives who take insurrection as a “theme” or even a procedure but at any rate as something to be injected into the gallery system, and thus into all its attendant circuits of valorization and exploitation. I don’t know if this is much different from the wave of awful “political” art that came out of the heyday of identity politics. At any rate Baudelairean neo-spleen is not much better than the same product that’s in all the other galleries.
One of the functions of art in capitalism is to poach and domesticate radical energies from elsewhere in society. Art historians ought to be frank about this. A critique of art history, or a meta-art history, might be used to disqualify the circulation of vaguely “political” signifiers as the common currency of the art world. We can say: No, this isn’t political, this is the same shit as always, please stop fucking around. And this might be a way to redirect the desire for a better life that is currently railroaded into the art world back to the world itself.
Anyway, moving on. I would avoid saying that there is a specific aesthetic of communization or insurrection, unless there’s an aesthetic of communism itself. Undoubtedly there would be such but we can’t say in advance what it is. It isn’t Emory Douglas or Claire Fontaine, however much we might be interested in their work. On the other hand there’s certainly a visual imaginary of insurrectionism. It’s interesting that The Coming Insurrection ends on a narrative scene, really a sort of creative writing exercise: “visualize total collapse” as opposed to “visualize world peace.” I find that useful as far as it goes. We do need to view the current order from the standpoint of its anticipated collapse. This is the basic historical materialist insight, and it’s also the point of departure for the Marxist tradition’s thorny pairing of utopia with catastrophe. When the image of insurrection substitutes for its actuality, though, we’re back into mere ideology. I don’t mean this as an attack on any particular milieu and its styling. We simply need to be very careful to specify that revolutionary dynamics are at least as likely to be marked by their non-visibility as by a production of images, by their withdrawal from the aesthetic as much as their conquest of a public profile. Politics happens where genre fails.
On this note, Occupy was fascinating because there was a basic tension between an (exhausted) image-politics – “the media isn’t covering this!” or “let’s make this trend on Twitter!” – and a mostly subterranean challenge to the rule of property, to the police state, ultimately to what has to be described as the whole of capitalist society. Capital’s overwhelming command over the boundaries of the sayable and the unsayable predictably meant that the more profound challenge often came to the surface only in variously mediated or symptomatic shapes. The Marxist interpretation of culture has some work to do here because one of the areas in which it historically gained purchase was of course the method of symptomatic reading – scouring the surface of culture for traces of contradiction. What gave itself to appearance in Occupy demands the same attention. But in present conditions, art history, in particular, may paradoxically best do this by shrinking back from “the aesthetic,” if this is understood as identical with the historical institution of art. There are other kinds of practice that challenge the very coherence of the term.
For example, one of the great slogans that came out of Occupy was “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.” This struck a chord with a lot of us because it hit on the predicament of trying to speak politically today: we are reduced to practical incoherence by the sheer wrongness of the world and of our lives, on what I’m tempted to call an existential level. Art has also sometimes been able to speak this inability to speak. The most recent Whitney Biennial was pitched to a very definite affective register, what David Joselit called “melancholy camp.” I think this might have been overplayed in the exhibition to the point of mannerism, but it does get at a very real sense of how we live now (with the caveat that “we” is of course parceled out by class, race, gender, and sexuality): now, we are very often in some way “camping,” improvising in the ruins of an order that can no longer promise a future, can no longer promise coherent structures of experience, in the end, can no longer promise its own reproduction and simple endurance. But did the Biennial register this situation in the most effective way, or the slogan? The latter, I suspect.
Art historians should recognize that art is not necessarily good at what it’s trying to do. Art as a practice may sometimes give us models of how to relate to the material world and to each other in ways that don’t succumb to the imperatives of value production. So do things like occupations and reading groups and riots, though, and it’s not obvious to me that art is currently doing a better job.
C.D.V.: What do you make the commercialization of some the aesthetic sensibilities around Occupy?
D.S.: To be honest I’m not entirely sure what you mean. There was an aspect of Occupy’s aesthetic presence that was always-already commercialized, so to speak, in that it aimed to propagate a political brand through existing channels of circulation. Meme politics and the like. I don’t have an objection to this per se. I like memes. But the limitations are clear and so is the tension between that strategy and the more intractable problems of subsistence, survival, and open class conflict that also surfaced in Occupy. I sometimes think of this tension metonymically as New York versus Oakland. That’s not very fair to either city, though. In fact all of the camps reproduced a gendered and racialized division between a self-appointed “99%,” who claimed the privilege of speaking for others, and the mass of the more profoundly dispossessed who continued to face state and economic violence on a daily basis and who often found themselves expropriated again in the discourse (and practice) of Occupy. This division was already recuperation from within. Unfortunately it was probably insurmountable in a context structured by white and male supremacy.
Beyond this my impression is that instances of specifically aesthetic co-optation have been minor. Occupy never really generated a new vocabulary of forms, in either politics or aesthetics, and so there ultimately wasn’t much to appropriate. This is in marked contrast to the revolts of the sixties, to take an obvious example. Aside from “We are the 99%” even the slogans barely percolated into mass culture. Occupy’s impact was probably more effectively distributed in heavily mediated and more insidiously ideological manifestations, like the most recent Batman movie (which I didn’t actually see, but then, the noise in the vicinity of these media events is often more interesting than the thing itself). Of course there was also a tremendous amount of liberal normalization especially over the past year, reaching a peak of absurdity with the election. But to me this was just so much slime returning to the swamp from whence it came.
Again the issue pivots around what does and doesn’t take coherent form at the present moment. Occupy never made itself into Leviathan. There was no figure of sovereignty to gather it together, nor so much as a credible placeholder/analyst akin to the historical prerevolutionary Party. Contra the back-to-Lenin crowd I don’t necessarily see this as a failing. Contra the horizontalist tendency I also don’t see it as a strength. It’s simply the place we are at. This is also an aesthetic fact since the distribution of aesthetic as much as political forms depends on establishing oppositions of figure to ground, on the emergence of a gestalt. The coalescence of organized and representational anti-capitalist politics seems to be what is barred. This undoubtedly has its effects in the visual field. The crisis of capitalism today is far more severe than in the sixties, but in the present cycle neither crisis nor opposition lend themselves readily to images, except of the most disposable sort (memes again); the masses don’t meld into an image of unity, and the forces of reaction have had only limited success in appealing to the image of the nation or other more or less fascistic rallying points. (I don’t intend to minimize the threat of fascism, in Greece for instance, but rather to say that the threat is unlikely to play out quite like its twentieth-century predecessors.) This complicates the familiar cycle of revolt-representation-recuperation that’s often presumed to be the modus operandi of spectacle. If representation never truly takes place, it’s hard to know how co-optation can proceed – except perhaps by colonization at an exponentially molecular level. Which is perhaps what I mean by the “internal” recuperation I’ve already described.
That’s a dark thought and I don’t want to give it too much weight. The commercialization of oppositional culture obviously continues apace – there’s a riot video game in development, I’m told – but it seems unlikely that this will succeed in containing what it represents. To be clear: it’s not as if there’s something external to the commodity’s rule, in either art or politics, that then becomes vitiated through recuperation, but rather that events like Occupy point to immanent breaks in the reproduction of capitalist relations – including their image-structures – even if on a certain level they are undoubtedly already “captured.” Capital and the state then seek to plug the leaks any way they can. Clearly it’s worth paying attention to such strategies. But it’s also important to remain true to the point of rupture – to continue asking, with the late Chris Marker, “Pourquoi quelquefois les images se mettent-elles à trembler?”
If the question is about art, however, I can only repeat what I’ve already said. There exists bad art about Occupy. The phenomenon seems minor enough that it may still be conscientiously ignored.
C.D.V.: Why do you think Oakland Occupy narrative is so often contrasted with the New York narrative despite the fact that Oakland occupy itself was criticized for being racially problematic by minority leaders within the community?
D.S.: The point is not that one version of Occupy or another was better at dealing with race but rather that Oakland was undeniably marked by a higher degree of militancy. All of the occupations were fundamentally inadequate in their attempts to confront racism. The dynamic was very different in different places, however. Occupy Oakland would not have been what it was without the uprisings following the Oscar Grant murder, to say nothing of many decades of radical black militancy. The name “Occupy Oakland” itself ramified into “Decolonize Oakland” and the “Oakland Commune,” both of which indicate quite divergent self-conceptions. It’s thus better to understand the 2011-12 events as autonomous developments out of the city’s own radical tradition rather than as imports from New York. There was of course conflict around tactics that were perceived to be alienating. But it’s demonstrably untrue and deeply reactionary to claim that people of color universally disapproved of militant escalation.
I want to avoid misunderstanding: I’m not trying to valorize Oakland over New York or anywhere else. I do believe Oakland showed us possibilities and limitations that were never so apparent elsewhere in the United States. It’s an important case study as we try to anticipate future developments. A similar mix of alliance and friction between insurrectionary currents, organized labor, and established community leaders (who too often act as managers of racial and class domination) – to name only three among many actors – will undoubtedly play out with any number of local variations over the coming years. These tensions surfaced in New York as well but were more effectively subsumed under the figure of a downwardly mobile “middle class.”
Now I’m beginning to sound like an authority, though, which I’m certainly not. These are my impressions from knowing people involved and from following events at a distance. I’m just an art historian.
C.D.V. : Some context over what I trying to get at. I don’t think anyone has said that Occupy Oakland was universally condemned by people of color, but I do think it is very clear that leaders within Oakland’s African American and Asian American community did start to become hostile to it after two or three event dafter the “general strike”. The tensions were not over black bloc tactics as a whole, but the community writings in the Oakland local turned after the strong local support after Scott Grant attack. The support was lost because of a few threats to shut down airports and other things that the Oakland Commune honestly did not have the capacity to do, as well as the targeting of some local businesses seen as not related to corporate or government problems within the community. Support in the community for the General Strike was very, very high particularly because of the Oscar Grant killing, the protests over BART police, and the particularly high rate of homelessness there. The black bloc tactics themselves weren’t condemned in local papers at first, just some the aimlessness of some of the choices of targets until that meme became much more used in the liberal press.
I think, however, it should be dealt with that this disapproval was seized upon by large portions of liberals within the media to be able to distance themselves from Occupy Oakland/The Oakland Commune and to try to paint it as a San Francisco kids coming to Oakland with bringing within the “black bloc.” This stuff is all over the editorial pages of local Oakland papers. To make it more problematic, this idea as then pressed in almost every liberal net-newspaper outlet: Mother Jones, HuffPo, the Nation, and Truth Out.
The debates over the black bloc were interesting though, and this brings me to my next question: Why do you think the aesthetics of the black bloc has been so successfully used within left-liberal circles as a distancing point? I have been involved in discussions and debates about these things since my teens, and the Black Bloc was used to protect squatters from police and some local gangs in Atlanta prior to the WTO Protests* in 1998 in Seattle. After the WTO protests, there was a small storm in the left media about the Black Bloc tactics used there, but this largely disappeared during the Bush years as a debate after the G-8 Protests were minimal at Sea Island for the same movement. Only after the Oakland commune incidents did it come back into play, but the objections seemed largely about Public Relations and aesthetics (direct property violence versus indirect property violence is not really a moral choice, as their effects are equal. None of the left-liberal publications had strong problems with the General Strike shutting down the Port of Oakland, but they did have problems with smashed windows).
D.S.: Thanks, I see where you’re coming from now. My understanding of what happened in Oakland is broadly the same. All of this of course came to a head with Move-In Day on January 28 last year, followed shortly thereafter by Chris Hedges’ despicable “Cancer in Occupy” article. But already interventions by the “peace police” indicated that there was never unity of action between left-liberals and radicals – as of course was only to be expected. Incidentally I don’t think it’s the case that there were no strong objections to the port shutdown. Certainly the second action in December got a lot of negative attention. Even on the radical left there was skepticism about Occupy’s relation to ILWU, the longshoremen’s union. Cal Winslow, who is a member of the group Retort, had a piece in Counterpunch criticizing the port shutdown due to lack of support from union leadership, for instance. At exactly the same moment the communization-oriented website Bay of Rage posted an article urging the necessity of circumventing the union apparatus entirely. This is just to point out that the moment of unity was very brief if it can be said to have happened at all. But then, this is not what you were asking about.
I have to say I’m not eager to jump into another discussion of the Black Bloc. By now the debate is so ossified that I wonder if much remains to be said. I take a longer perspective on the matter because in my own work I happen to study art and politics in post-‘68 West Germany. That’s where the Black Bloc was first developed, taking cues from the Dutch Provos and other street-fighting contingents of the New Left. It arose as a combat tactic at a time when you could still reasonably expect to fight the cops in pitched battle and win, as indeed happened on a number of occasions. Thanks to the Autonome scene and a massive squatting movement there were sizeable chunks of Berlin and Hamburg where the state effectively had no authority. In those circumstances the tactic made a lot of sense and indeed marked an important innovation after the decline of both late-60s mass mobilizations and of the armed struggle groups following the “German Autumn” of 1977. Absent these conditions the Black Bloc is something else entirely. I could say much on the subject but I would likely only duplicate arguments from elsewhere without making any particular contribution of my own. At any rate it’s an odd moment for us to be considering the question, given that we’re now in a comparatively dormant phase (with the unanticipated exception of the emergence of an Egyptian Black Bloc in February, about which other parties are surely far more knowledgeable than I).
The role of the Black Bloc in the liberal imaginary and in the media, especially “left” media, is a different matter. It does bear repeating that from the point of view of capital the loss millions of dollars in a blockade is far more serious than the loss a few thousand as a result of direct property damage. Nobody actually cares about bank windows. So clearly the Black Bloc induces hysteria because it’s taken as a threat to social stability and property rights far in excess of its immediate impact. For any right-thinking anti-capitalist this would presumably be a plus. But huge segments of the “left” are afraid to make capitalists afraid. Granting the existence of internal problems within anarchist and other milieux, I therefore think it’s correct to say that the ideological distinction between “violent” and “non-violent” protest – a distinction that itself unavoidably produces complicity with state violence – can be laid primarily at the feet of “left” commentators who bow to the supposed necessity of positive media messaging. This is a catch-22: capitalist media will never grant positive coverage to anything that seriously threatens class rule. The problem is real of course but it’s worse than misguided to believe we can solve it through better behavior at protests. The Black Bloc is a convenient bête noire on which to pin censure of any desire for radical negation whatsoever. If it wasn’t ready to hand something would have to be conjured up to take its place – either that, or visible anti-capitalist contestation would cease to exist. So the reason the Black Bloc is an effective way to split movements… is because it’s an effective way to split movements. Left-liberals distance themselves from the Black Bloc because it’s a convenient pretext to distance themselves from radical opposition to capitalism.
Rather than fulminate at greater length I’d prefer to move on, though. The “aesthetics” at issue here are extremely interesting in their own right, whatever reformists make of them. What I’m about to say stinks of recuperation, but I do think the Black Bloc is a worthy object of study for art historians. It’s another moment – neither necessary nor privileged, but significant – in the long retreat from representational politics and its privileged image-structures in post-60s capitalism, a theme I’ve gestured towards already. The Black Bloc is nothing if not an embodied (anti-)politics of (anti-)visibility. Is it an image or an anti-image? Well, that’s a good question for art historians. And I believe its implications extend to any number of artistic practices as well.
C.D.V.: What do you make the long slow death of the middle brow represented by things like the neo-liberalization of NPR?
D.S.:I wish it were a little less slow.
A bit more seriously: I think in the case of something like NPR (which I never listen to, anyway) the decline can probably be attributed to an increasing divergence between the experience of its mostly white, mostly well-educated, mostly petty-bourgeois audience, and the station’s attempts to reflect that audience’s consciousness back to itself. The postwar era in the United States could be defined in terms of the apparent cultural hegemony of the “middle class”; in fact, of course, the petty bourgeoisie in no way held true political or economic power, but the culture mirrored back to them their own sense of autonomy. Middlebrow organs like NPR or the New Yorker attempt to continue that function for a smaller class fraction, one that perhaps until recently felt itself immune to economic precarity. With the catastrophic rise of student debt and narrowing horizons for college graduates this self-image has become increasingly threadbare. So instead middlebrow culture now more and more has the immediate task of shoring up neoliberalism “with a human face,” so to speak.
C.D.V.: Do you see the so-called hipster aesthetic as a different manifestation of the same tendency?
D.S.: I guess I do, although there are different layers here. I also have no patience with hipster-bashing. A lot of what’s identified as hipster culture is an improvisational response to the contradictions of petty-bourgeois precarity. It’s self-styling for those who for the most part don’t work very much or don’t have much security at the jobs they do have – not much of a future – but who are nonetheless forced to maintain an ability and readiness to work at any moment: a kind of unmoored professionalism. The insufferableness and tragedy of hip life is a function of its scramble for cultural autonomy within the most abject dependency on the attenuated wage-relation. As opposed to earlier counter- or subcultures (punk, say), the moment of negation is perpetually deferred. Needless to say I’m not talking about the stereotypical trust-fund hipster here but rather the mass of mostly post-collegiate individuals in the global North who have been socialized as middle-class workers but who now find this way of life inaccessible, whether temporarily or permanently.
C.D.V.: Do you see hipster bashing as a form of distinction in Bordieu’s sense of the term?
D.S.: I suppose it must be, but I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep over the question.
C.D.V.: Let’s completely shift gears: Why do you think communization theory has been subject to complete misrepresented in a long of left-wing critiques?
D.S.: As a fairly recent convert myself I can say that even with the benefit of a passable background in Marxism my initial encounters with communization theory were characterized by misrecognition and missed connections. I became aware of this body of literature in a major way with the protests and occupations at the University of California in 2009-10. If you weren’t paying attention it was possible to misinterpret what was happening as undifferentiated radical escalation and hence to miss what was so distinctive about the texts coming out from Endnotes or Research and Destroy, to name two important collectives involved in the resurgence of communization theory. So I can understand the tendency in others, as well. And indeed too much of the discourse is stuffed with needlessly convoluted Hegelianisms, even if it ultimately does, as a rule, make sense. The work of Théorie Communiste for example is perhaps the most profound analysis of capitalism today, often delivered in truly unfortunate prose.
After a certain point the misinterpretations seem to become willful, however. I believe the problem is not that the basic insights of communization theory are especially difficult to grasp but rather that they fluster the left’s basic assumptions in ways that can’t readily be parried by creaky arguments against anarchism, adventurism, determinism, or what have you. Incidentally this is not in any way annexable to a Platypus-style thesis on the deadness of the Left. Communization theory as I understand it reaches its conclusions not by way of the political superstructure but instead in a thoroughly materialist interpretation of changes in the reproduction of the capital-labor relation. (This is for the moment to put aside debates within the communization current over invariance, subsumption, and all the other words that give people like me a reputation for opacity.) Communization theory at its best is in fact an extremely rigorous engagement with the basic problems of Marxism; it pursues this engagement with a ruthless focus on the possibilities and impossibilities of the present moment, and hence derives findings that are deeply uncongenial to any form of political nostalgia. The usual defense mechanism is then to reduce communization theory to something it’s not, namely anarchism, adventurism, determinism, or what have you.
This isn’t, by the way, to say that “communization theory” is a single thing or even a thing at all. The term has oddly come to designate an extremely varied set of perspectives unified by perhaps little more than a common origin in the European (mostly French) post-’68 ultraleft, with its forebears in the Situationist International, left communism, council communism, certain strands of anarchism, etc. The differences between, say, Tiqqun and Léon de Mattis and Jacques Camatte are vast enough to destabilize the label altogether. Most recently there’s been some confusion about the relation of communization to value-form theory, which has quite different roots in the late Frankfurt School and the German “New Reading of Marx.” Confusion of this sort might not be such a bad thing; certainly it’s good that “communization” does not exist as an endlessly disputed point of doctrine in the manner of “Leninism.” It would be a huge error to reify one theory or another as the only true essence of communization. That said, my own views are most in line with the perspectives articulated in the second issue of the journal Endnotes, in case you were curious.
C.D.V.: What do Theorie Communiste understands that a lot of other Marxists don’t? And why does it lead to awful prose?
D.S.: Why it leads to awful prose I don’t know. It may simply lead to hasty translation, though to be fair the original texts seem gnarled as well. One could probably attribute this to having worked for decades in near-total obscurity. In these circumstances the development of the collective’s own terminology and self-understanding undoubtedly often took precedence over making themselves clear to others. There’s also the more problematic fact that Théorie Communiste have little interest in building a mass political project of any sort and hence don’t feel the need to explain themselves. Their writing is diagnosis and critique in a rather classical sense of the latter word: it aims to root out the conditions of possibility for thinking communism at all in the present day, but offers no strategy by which to achieve it in a given conjuncture. I find this frustrating myself. Understanding their intentions nonetheless helps to pre-empt the inevitable “Yes, but what do you do?” question. You can only say: in any given situation, whenever it’s feasible, you communize. How that’s supposed to happen can only ever be specific and improvisational; it might involve seizing public squares, or it might simply be turning to existing forms of sociality as a new basis for survival in the absence of capital. Between the logic of theory and the praxis of communism lie whole ranges of hybrid forms of organization that are neither condoned nor excluded a priori by the analysis. In our own lives dealing with these forms will necessarily be paramount. Contrary to the usual accusation, then, communization theory is not inflexibly anti-organizational; rather, it tends to indicate why certain ways of organizing are unlikely to work now and is in that sense immediately practical. But I don’t deny that there’s a hermeticism to some of the writing.
Théorie Communiste are useful to me because they ground the reproduction of class and capital in cycles of struggle that are understood to fundamentally alter the class relation itself. In the most abstract sense they argue that the era in which the proletariat’s revolutionary struggles tended towards the affirmation of the class within capitalist social relations – either in social democracy, or in production under state socialism – comes to an end when the proletariat’s entire being as a class is subsumed under capital: when institutions like the Party or the Union or the Council have been wholly defeated or assimilated to self-exploitation; when capital’s own offensive reestablishes control but at the cost of destroying its very condition of realization, that is to say, the continued reproduction of labor. Class identity then no longer appears as the basis from which to pursue an affirmative politics of autonomy but as an obstacle to be overcome. It’s only by failing to grasp the dialectic here that such a claim can be attacked for supposedly upholding capital as the only subject of history. From a Marxist perspective it should be obvious that the proletariat is a class of capital just as capital only valorizes itself in labor: capital and labor reproduce each other mutually, but capital’s drive towards ever-greater subsumption (through the colonization of everyday life, increased mechanization, neoliberal revanchism, and a host of other devices) progressively eliminates the reserves from which a positive identity for the proletariat might be elaborated and affirmed. Crisis is therefore defined as a breakdown of reproduction that forces workers to encounter their class identity as something external, something to be negated; the revolutionary class is then understood to be the class that negates itself and capitalist society not by its universalization under a dictatorship of the proletariat but rather in its immediate self-abolition, the destruction of the value-form, and a move towards other means of subsistence – communization. The point here is not necessarily that this process has happened or will happen in the conceptual purity of the above presentation but rather that this structure constitutes an explicable tendency that may be expressed in all sorts of chaotic or contingent events.
Théorie Communiste are not the only authors to have made these points, and in many local instances I have strong disagreements with their conclusions. But I do believe they’ve zeroed in on the predicament of our moment with greater force and consistency than perhaps anyone else. Their version of communization theory allows us to recognize the present as an impasse and yet historicize that impasse; it helps to explain the collapse of the left without melancholy for lost powers, lost representations, without despair in the face of a supposedly inalterable totality, and without need for an “idea” to provide direction; it also points towards a practice by which we can move forward even without a grand project or a vaguely theological guarantee of success. Their work has also proved generative for thinking in other directions. Its recent intersection with the concept of social reproduction in materialist feminism is particularly exciting to me.
To return for a moment to your previous question, though, I’d like to say something about another possible source of confusion. Recently I have become more aware that communization theory moves in a very odd temporality. The emphasis on immediacy, the lack of an anticipated transitional phase, “communization in the present tense” – communism as something to do rather than a program to enact – can easily lead to the impression that communization theory conceives of revolution as necessarily both imminent and punctual. In fact I see no reason why this should be the case. Communization theory instead elucidates a spatiotemporal logic within any revolutionary process conceivable on the basis of the present form of the contradiction between labor and capital. It doesn’t provide a timeline, and it doesn’t claim that no other processes may take place concurrently. All real politics are contradictory and unevenly developed. I can imagine communization as taking place over the course of a century, at many levels, at many speeds.
*Originally, read “G-8 protests” due to the confusion of the interviewer and has since been corrected.
I want you to imagine Captain Kirk beaming into your living room and attacking your flat screen digital TV, to imagine he’s doing it in an effort to set you free from the constraints of early 21st century barbarism. He’s killing your television by asking it to solve some unsolvable logic problem. Kirk is whispering the liar paradox to the DVR.
It’s always the same with Kirk. He beams down and outfoxes a computer God, or kills a robot girl with a kiss, and his time it’s your television he’s after.
Imagine your set is sputtering, about to explode, and then it switches on. For a brief instant, just the time needed for a flicker of light to appear before the set goes dark forever, a television program appears onscreen. What’s on the TV? What would does your television turn to in its last effort to figure out a solution for Kirk’s riddle? The answer is Star Trek, obviously, because Star Trek itself is a kind of Technicolor logic bomb. Your TV set is probably showing the episode with Captain Pike and the Orion Slave girl because that’s the one I’d choose.
Kirk understood the show and used his understanding to kill computers. In the second season of the original series, in an episode entitled I Mudd. Kirk explains his own show in order to kill an android named Norman.
KIRK: What is a man but that lofty spirit, that sense of enterprise, that devotion to something that cannot be sensed, cannot be realized but only dreamed! The highest reality.
NORMAN THE ANDROID: That is irrational. Illogical. Dreams are not real. […]
(Smoke comes out of Norman’s head.)
Back in 1986 William Shatner appeared in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live and told Trekkies everywhere to get a life. In the sketch he asked Jon Lovitz if he’d ever kissed a girl and told the crowd of SNL cast members playing the part of Trekkies at a Star Trek convention to leave their parents’ basements and experience the real world.
“I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show! I mean, look at you, look at the way you’re dressed! You’ve turned an enjoyable little job that I did as a lark for a few years into a COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME!” Shatner shouted.
Shatner could never kill a computer. He doesn’t understand how people use BLAs like Star Trek to live their lives, how some of us even use Star Trek to kiss girls. It sounds impossible, but you really can take your enjoyment of Star Trek quite a long way. In fact, the first time I realized just how far was, coincidentally, my first time.
I was in my girlfriend’s parent’s old house, a house that they couldn’t sell after they’d moved out, but she still had keys and we were in the empty space that had been an upstairs rec room. There wasn’t any music playing, nor electricity, and we didn’t have anything to drink that might lubricate our coupling. What we had was the Star Trek Edition of a Golden Trivia game. I was in my girlfriend’s parent’s old house, a house that they couldn’t sell after they’d moved out, but she still had keys and we were in the empty space that had been an upstairs rec room. There wasn’t any music playing, nor electricity, and we didn’t have anything to drink that might lubricate our coupling. What we had was the Star Trek Edition of a Golden Trivia game.
Before we got around to intercourse on the wall to wall orange carpet, doing it on the spot where the entertainment center had left a indentation, we asked each other questions about M class planets and the Federation. Rather than grope and undress, rather than struggle with the clasp of a lace bra or the buttons on the fly of a pair of blue jeans, we played strip Star Trek Trivia. We were geeks and this seemed natural to us. We found a way to use our mutual affliction in order to get off.
“Why did Kirk display such inordinate love and affection for Dr. Helen Noel?” she asked me.
“Who? Which episode was that?”
“Do you know the answer?” she asked. I didn’t, or pretended that I didn’t. I ended up giving her my left sock, but, for the record, the answer, per the back of the card, is this: “Kirk was under the influence of a powerful suggestion implanted by use of a devilish machine.” The episode was the Dagger of the Mind and the machine was called a neural neutralizer.
Okay, he didn’t really. He died before Star Trek was ever on the air. But if you google the words fetish and repetition you’ll find a link to a book called Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. More specifically you’ll find a link to this passage:
“Neither the popular stereotype of the crazed Trekkie nor academic notions of commodity fetishism or repetition compulsion are adequate to explain the complexity of fan culture.”
But this assertion simply underestimates the complexities involved in both fetishism and repetition compulsion. Fetishism and repetition compulsion can produce Baroque results, and can certainly explain most of the more faithful fan tributes to the series.
For example, last summer I took the family to Cathedral Park for something called Star Trek in the Park, and watching the reenactment of “Journey to Babel,” seeing Portland actors, hipsters dressed in perfectly authentic uniforms complete with wavy stripes on their shirt cuffs and with perfectly reasonable facsimiles of a Tellarite pig nose or Andorian antenna when necessary, was a queasily religious or fetishistic experience.
The Atomic Arts Ensemble delivered the lines from the original episode and typed into invisible computer panels, their fingers wiggling methodically in thin air. They stared at a view screen that wasn’t there, stared through empty air out at me, and I experienced something like Déjà vu. The repetition of “The Journey to Babel”, the uncanniness of the Atomic Arts reproduction, unsettled me.
Adam Rosko played Kirk for Trek in the Park, and he was perfect. He did an especially good job when he fought the Andorian. He perfectly replicated Shatner’s fighting techniques, and watching him I stopped thinking or comparing. I didn’t have to think.
Rosko grabbed his blue opponent by the shoulders, fell back, and used his right leg to flip the alien onto his back. Then Rosko rolled onto his stomach and dove for the alien’s right arm, for his right hand which held an Andorian dagger, but the alien rolled over onto his belly and stood up. The Andorian tried to wrench his arm out of Rosko’s grip and then used his left hand to deliver a Karate chop which sent Rosko reeling. The Andorian turned on him and lunged with the knife. Rosko as Kirk dodged to the right and, when the alien swiped at his head, Rosko both ducked and brought up his knee, delivering a blow to the Andorian’s belly. The alien bent over in pain and Rosko delivered Kirk’s signature double fisted blow to the alien’s right side. He then jumped at the alien, using both feet and delivering a double kick, but ending up on his back. Rosko rolled over and started to slowly crawl away on all fours (too slowly, what is Kirk waiting for?) and the Andorian grabbed him by the neck and stabbed him in the right side. Was this the end?
Of course not. Rosko reached back and flipped the Andorian over his left shoulder. And when the Andorian got back to his feet and reached for the knife that had flown out of his hand, Rosko was on him fast. Rosko kicked the Andorian in his face and knocked him out cold. Then Rosko flopped against a pole and used the Intercom prop to call the bridge.
Freud says that the sensation of the uncanny arises when what is familiar is made to appear unfamiliar, and what I experienced when Rosko fought like Kirk was precisely that unfamiliarity of the familiar. It was the perfection of the repetition that unsettled me and made Star Trek seem strange again.
Here’s an experiment: Try repeating the same word over and over again like a mantra. Take any word. Better yet, try the word Spock.
Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock…
After awhile the word, the sound of it (or the look of it on the page or screen), will separate from it’s meaning, and all that you’ll be left with is an empty shell. If you say the word Spock often enough all you’ll be left with is the detritus of the name. Spock himself will disappear. Through repetition Spock can cease to be Spock. Through repetition Spock can become something mysterious and unknown. Spock can become uncanny.
To really understand what a fetish is and how the fetish relies on a repetition watch episode seven of the original Star Trek series. It was entitled What Are Little Girls Made Of and on the show the Enterprise sets off to rescue a man named Doctor Korby. Korby was lost during an off world expedition to the ruins on the planet Exo 3, and when the Enterprise arrives Kirk discovers that Korby is living underground with a bunch of life like replicants. Korby learned the secret of the underground ruins and used the ancient technology there to fashion himself friends and servants. After Kirk arrives Korby tries to convince him that these android doubles represent a step toward immortality. These doubles are a triumph, another victory for human reason, another step forward toward enlightenment and away from bodily corruption, but as events unfold Korby reveals himself to be a villain. He has one of his androids, a giant named Ruk left over from the days of the Old Ones, murder several red shirts. Worse he duplicates Kirk and attempts to take over the Enterprise.
Typical, isn’t it?
Eventually we come to know that Korby himself is an android. The real Korby duplicated himself right before he died, and when the duplicate Korby is revealed as an android the effect is uncanny. Korby is a machine, and when this is revealed he becomes pathetic. Nurse Chapel, Korby’s former lover, recoils.
KIRK: You were a man with respect for all things alive. How can I explain the change in you? If I was to tell Earth I was in your hands, to tell them what has become of you (Kirk jumps Korby and traps his arm in a door. The skin tears to reveal electronics.)
KORBY: It’s still me, Christine. Roger. I’m in here. You can’t imagine how it was. I was frozen, dying. My legs were gone. I was, I had only my brain between life and death. This can be repaired easier than another man can set a broken finger. I’m still the same as I was before, Christine, perhaps even better.
CHAPEL: Are you, Roger?
It’s a creepy scene. It’s not just that we come to see this new Korby as a robot, but that we can’t stop ourselves from seeing him as also human. The revelation of Korby’s double fundamentally undermines the integrity of the original.
If a fetish is going to keep working it’s creepiness and inauthenticity has to be denied, if not unknown.
We have to pretend to be authentic in order to keep pretending, and to do that we have to find someone who is innocent, somebody who is authentic, who will believe in our fetish for us. That’s what Barthes was looking for in his essay on the Death of the Author, while in the Star Trek episode the dirty job fell to Kirk:
KIRK: In here, Spock.
SPOCK: Captain, are you all right? Nurse? Where’s Doctor Korby?
KIRK: Doctor Korby was never here.
But, Korby was there. It’s just that he’d turned himself into a robot. That’s a pretty messed up thing to do, of course, but it is also perfectly normal. It turns out that beaming a robot is the only way to become human.
Another French Marxist, a nut job named Louis Althusser, explained how this works in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. He wrote:
Notice that he’s doubling up on fantasy in that line. Althusser wrote that an ideology is not just some imaginary myth a person believes, but rather it’s the myth people believe explains why they believe in myths. An ideology is not some false picture of the world but our false picture about our false picture.
Take the notion of God. An ideology isn’t the belief in God but the explanation of this belief. The obvious one about God is that we believe in him because he’s up there in heaven, and while he’s pretty much inscrutable he’s giving us some basic ideas and helping us to believe in him. However, another ideology about God wouldn’t take God to be really up there at all. An atheist ideology would explain God to us by suggesting that we’ve been manipulated by a caste of ancient priests, kings, or authors. It’s these rulers who foisted a believe in God on us, and they did it in order to control us. Why? Because they’re bastards.
Or, taking a different point of view, an ideology might explain our belief in God by blaming the world itself. Life on Earth is filled to the brim with toothaches, irritable bowels, plagues, killer bees, and people like Justin Bieber. Living in world like this one requires people imagine a God in heaven. Who wouldn’t fantasize about God when faced with the plague? There are no atheists in foxholes. And no one remains Godless after they’ve been made to watch reality television programs like The Biggest Loser or Jersey Shore. The reality of living in and off this kind of filth and debris pushes us into a God delusion.
But Althusser wanted to get past all of these explanations. He wrote that ideologies are simply necessary. Ideologies are fantasies that support our relationships with each other and these false pictures give us our very identities.
Think of it like this:
An ideology is a picture we take of the world and then pretend is real. We do this by ignoring the camera we took the picture with and all of the other mechanisms and relationships that had to exist in order for that camera to land in our hands.
A 1972 a documentary advertisement or promotional film for Eastman Kodak and polaroid spelled it out.
“Since 1942 Edward Lamb and Polaroid have pursued a single concept, one single thread, the removal of the barrier between the photographer and his subject.”
This idea that a photograph could be taken without “any barriers between the photographer and his subject” is the idea behind every BLA, every robot, there is. It is also the goal of James Kirk in episode after episode. He lands on a planet, discovers that there is a barrier between the people on the surface and the society they’re living in, and sets off to kill or remove the barrier.
SPOCK: This is a soulless society, Captain. It has no spirit, no spark. All is indeed peace and tranquillity. The peace of the factory, the tranquillity of the machine. All parts working in unison.
KIRK: And when something unexplained happens, their routine is disrupted.
SPOCK: Until new orders are received. The question is, who gives those orders?
SPOCK: There is no Landru, Captain, not in the human sense.
KIRK: You’re thinking the same thing I am. Mister Spock, the plug must be pulled.
KIRK: Landru must die.
SPOCK: Captain, our Prime Directive of non-interference.
KIRK: That refers to a living, growing culture. Do you think this one is?
In the episode Return of the Archons Kirk and his crew discover that the citizens of planet Beta are mindless automatons. They are perfectly pleasant, if a bit placid, most of the time, but occasionally, on the instruction of an invisible voice, they erupt into a riot. Kirk arrives a few minutes before one of these cathartic festivals and witnesses the smiling denizens of Beta transform into shrieking hysterics who beat and fuck each other in the streets.
The trouble is that the people of planet Beta are under the control of a figure named Landru, and Landru is a computer. Kirk is nearly assimilated into this “body” but manages to kill the computer instead. Kirk demonstrates to Landru that the computer itelf is a contradiction. The computer is working against its own programming simply by following the program. Landru’s effort to create a sustainable and harmoniously balanced society has created a stagnant society instead, and Kirk puts it to Landru that Landru should destroy itself because the computer’s efforts toward harmony creates disharmony. Landru follows the logic and self-destructs.
However, once Landru is destroyed a new order, a new mechanism, has to be established if life on Beta can continue. Kirk calls in the Federation to establish a new world order for the colonists. He destroys one barrier and then quickly erects a new one, and all the while he assures the colonists that they will love this new barrier because they’ll find it isn’t a barrier at all.
Paradoxically, Kirk both understands the paradox and doesn’t. There is no real and natural life. The people of Beta will always need a Polaroid Camera, a computer like Landru, or a show like Star Trek, if they want to be able to leave their parents basement and manage to kiss a girl.
[What follows is a rough draft for a proposed book on Star Trek and Capitalism. This is the final part of a section called "How to Watch Star Trek."]
The Frenchman who we should really blame for these instructions, for the necessity of explaining what should be easy, didn’t call himself Marxist at all but, instead, was the first deconstructionist. It was Jacques Derrida who argued that meaning always had to be deferred, and that it was impossible to arrive at a meaning for a show like Star Trek because of the sheer density of meanings that the show contained. I don’t know if Derrida ever watched the show, but if he had he would have probably said of Star Trek something like what he said about ghosts in the 1983 experimental film “Ghost Dance.”
He was asked if he believes in ghosts and he replied: “That’s a difficult question. You’re asking a ghost whether he believes in ghosts. That is, since I’ve been asked to play myself in a film that is more or less improvised I feel as if I’m letting a ghost speak for me. Rather than playing myself, without knowing it, I let a ghost ventriloquize my words, or play my role.”
Now, clearly Derrida was very good at smoking a pipe and acting mysteriously brilliant, but in this case the mystery can be solved. Derrida’s point was that he was never fully present. It connects to his idea that every text always contains elements which oppose its meaning. This is what deconstruction was all about. Deconstruction was about finding these traces of opposition everywhere, in big ideas like Marxism, in pop stars like Madonna, and in philosophy books. Everything could be exploded because everything contained a bit of its opposite.
Now, if this seems confusing to you be comforted by the fact that you’re not alone in that feeling. Derrida was so confusing that many people, even other big intellectuals, were pretty put out by him.
For instance, the sweater wearing anti-Capitalist superstar Noam Chomsky once wrote that, “Derrida […] writes things that I also don’t understand. No one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities:
(a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or
(b) … I won’t spell it out.
But I’ll dare to say that Derrida wasn’t a fraud, but rather that he was, like Barthes, trying very hard to kill the Blinking Light Aliens that kept popping up. What Derrida was on about was pretty much the same thing as what Barthes focussed on when he went after the Author. It was by and large the same target as what Nietzsche went after when he smugly proclaimed that he found God’s body laying dead in the marketplace.
In order to understand how these oppositions in a text like Star Trek can be worked out, in order to stop worrying and realize what is simple and what is complicated, you have to understand something fairly complicated first. The meaning of our lives, the context which history appears, the way ghosts like Derrida and Barthes and Karl Marx are to be understood, isn’t something we have to discover, but is rather something we can’t avoid creating.
In the episode “Dagger of the Mind” the Enterprise transported needed supplies to Tantalus V, a rehabilitation colony for the criminally insane. Things go wrong, as they usually do, after one the inmates from the colony manages to sneak aboard the Enterprise. He stages several frothing and scenery chewing rages and is eventually captured and discovered not to be an inmate at all, but a member of the staff at Tantalus V. The escaped inmate is really Dr. Van Gelder and (according to the chief officer and head doctor at Tantalus V) he is a victim of an unfortunate accident with a neural beam. Kirk decides to launch a follow-up investigation of the incident and Doctor McCoy assigns the psychiatrist Dr. Helen Noel as Kirk’s technical aid on the away mission due to Noel’s experience with rehabilitative therapy.
This episode is, strangely, the one and only time Christmas is mentioned in an episode of the original Star Trek. When Kirk meets Noel on the transporter pad she mentions a Christmas party.
Noel: Dr. Helen Noel, Captain. We’ve met. Don’t you remember–the science lab Christmas party?
Kirk: Yes, I remember.
Noel: You dropped in–
Kirk: Yes, yes, I remember.
Spock: Problem, Captain?
Kirk: Mr. Spock, you tell McCoy that she had better check out as the best assistant I ever had.
Here’s the full plot of this “Christmas Episode”:
Kirk discovers that the lead doctor at Tantalus V, Dr. Adams, is using a neural neutralizer on both the inmates and the staff in order to control and subdue them. When Kirk arrives with Helen Noel he is met by the unctuous head doctor who gives them a tour that includes a short inspection of the neural neutralizer. Kirk sneaks back to more thoroughly examine this machine (it looks a bit like a heat lamp) and tests the device on himself.
You probably already know what the neural neutralizer is or have a sense of it. A portable version of the mechanism is featured in the Men In Black films. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones use a pen sized neutralizer to blank a person’s consciousness and implant false memories. The neutralizer on Star Trek does the same thing, and in order to discover the full implications of dangers involved Kirk puts himself in the hotseat. He goes under the beam while Dr. Noel is at the control panel.
Kirk: I have no desire to damage my brain. Can this be handled with reasonable safety? Yes or no?
Kirk: And will you be able to determine if that beam is harming me in the slightest?
Noel: Yes, Captain. I know my profession. Ready?
Noel: We’ll try minimum intensity–a second or two.
Kirk: Anytime you’re ready, Doctor, just for a second or two.
Noel: We already tried it for that long, Captain.
Kirk: Nothing happened.
Noel: Something happened. Your face went completely blank.
Kirk: Try a…harmless suggestion.
Let’s pause on that, leave Kirk under the heat lamp and waiting for Noel to implant her suggestion. Instead of continuing on with Star Trek I want to turn instead to one of my earliest Christmas memories. It dates back to 1977, back to Kindergarten.
I was six years old and I was selected to play the part of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer for our classroom production based on the Rankin/Bass television special. I recall the wooden trunk that contained the reindeer costumes; I imagine I remember it as being painted with off white paint and having gold trim. The teacher dragged it to the front of the classroom and I became excited as she pulled out antlers and leather head bands decorated in jingle bells. Everyone of the children in Miss. Dendot’s Kindergarten class wanted to a set of these new appendages but there were maybe 17 or so of us and only eight reindeer: Dancer, Dasher, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen.
Sitting on the orange carpet, a little narcissist who was sure the world revolved around me, who knew that whatever was happening was staged for my benefit, I watched with my legs folded as Miss. Dendots hand out the antlers to the others. Each time that I was passed over for some other Kindergartener, each time I was rejected, I felt as though I’d received a blow. When all the antlers were distributed, and I realized that I was not going to be a reindeer, I felt as though a judgement on my character had been rendered.
“Everybody is going to get a part,” Miss Dendots told us. But, I didn’t want just any part. I didn’t want to be an elf, or the Abominable Snowman, or anything else. I wanted to be a reindeer. Besides, it turned out that she was lying because I was passed over each time this time as well. She handed the elf hats to other children. I wasn’t going to be the elf dentist or Santa or Mrs. Claus and I wasn’t given the snowman mask. Soon enough everyone had a prop or a costume and there were only two of us who were still empty handed.
The teacher held up what seemed to be a red superball and a pink bow.
So, to return to Doctor Helen Noel and the neural neutralizer, she was about to make a suggestion to Captain Kirk.
What Helen Noel suggested was that “something different” happened between them after the Christmas party. She starts to describe their tryst in order to recast it a different light when she is interrupted. Doctor Adams catches them in the act, in two acts actually, and he intervenes. But, before that Doctor Helen Noel started to describe the Christmas party, and what she said can be interpreted in at least two different ways.
Here’s her suggestion to Kirk: “At the Christmas party…we met. We danced. You talked about the stars. I suggest now that it happened in a different way. You swept me off my feet and carried me to your cabin.” But what does this mean? We, the viewer, is left with a choice. We can either believe that nothing happened at the Christmas party originally but that she wishes it did. We can suppose that she’s suggesting her own sexual fantasy to Kirk, or we can take it that she is retelling what actually did happen but, perhaps in a more romantic light. Perhaps her intended suggestion never arrives due to Doctor Adams’ intervention? In fact, we aren’t given a clear picture of what happened at or after the Christmas party. In fact, we’re forced to read it both ways. On the one hand if they did have a tryst then why does Noel describe their original encounter as having ended with Kirk talking about the stars? Why does she unfurl the story of their return to his quarters as something she’s adding to the original story? On the other hand, if they did not have tryst then why did Kirk seem so uncomfortable when he ran into her on the transporter pad at the outset of the story?
This is, perhaps, how Roddenberry and company make us complicit in the lurid fantasy of Kirk and Noel’s intergalactic coupling. This contradictory suggestion that brings forth the image can also always insist on its own innocence. In any case, before Helen Noel can complete her suggestion she is discovered. Doctor Adams finds her at the controls of the neural neutralizer, and he has his assistant subdue Doctor Noel while he takes over at the microphone.
Adams: Captain Kirk is going to have a complete demonstration. I want there to be no doubts whatsoever in his mind.
Adams: You’re madly in love with Helen, Captain. You’d lie, cheat, steal for her, sacrifice your career, your reputation.
Noel: No, Doctor! No!
Adams: The pain–do you feel it, Captain? You must have her, or the pain grows worse, the pain, the longing for her.
Here’s the thing: Kindergarten is an introduction to the public realm through puppets, the alphabet, the days of the week, and your peers. In school you are taught how to deal with other children, how to navigate adults, by using the things you’re given in the classroom. The pencils and worksheets are tools used to get the teachers to relax and stop worrying about you, the crayons, scissors and paste are the ways you to get talk about television with your friends, and rubber balls and jump ropes are the tools used to either ward off or implement physical violence.
Or take show and tell, it was a kind of self-presentation. I recall bringing in a mouse shaped piggy bank. It had mostly cartoon like features: his ears were big like Mickey Mouse’s ears, but his hind legs were shaped a bit more realistically. My mouse had buck teeth and might have really been a rat because he had a long rubber tail that was always cold to the touch. He was covered in a layer of blue felt-like material, the same stuff they used to coat the heads of a drinking bird toys only blue and not red, and I recall that I managed to rub the blue material off around his hands and ears just by playing with him. I’d grab his ear in the same spot to make his head swivel, and put coins in his upturned hand. But when I brought him to the classroom and shook out the pennies inside him, wiggling them out through the slat on his back, nobody noticed the bald patches or irregularities. Instead, the unanimous opinion was that my mouse was cool.
Being selected to he Rudolph was even better than being recognized as the owner of a cool piggy bank. While the toy was merely what I wanted to be, being picked out as Rudolph defined me as me. The teacher’s judgement was official and she’d named me Rudolph. She’d given me the lead.
The red rubber ball was actually a rubber clown nose and when I put it on I found that it smelled bad. There was a sort of chemical smell inside and that smell filled my nose whenever I wore the nose. Also the device pinched and was uncomfortable. Still, when I was given the choice to use red face paint instead I refused. This extra appendage was what made me Rudolph and as bad as it smelled, as uncomfortable as it was, I wasn’t about to give that up. How could I break up the set? A little blonde girl whose name I’ve now forgotten but who I’ll call Jennifer had received the pink bow at the same time that I’d been given the rubber nose and she was my girlfriend, or Rudolph’s girlfriend, in the play. In the Rankin/Bass version Rudolph has a girlfriend.
Once this little girl was chosen by my kindergarten teacher I felt that I really did like her. Of course, there was nowhere for this attraction to go. I didn’t have a birthday party coming up and I didn’t even think of inviting her to my house for a play date–but I tried to be near her in the classroom, to continue on being Rudolph to her Clarice. I was disappointed when, at snack time, she sat with the boy in the brown pants and not by me. Even though, or because of, the fact that my relationship with Jennifer was entirely a construction I felt hurt by what I was her rejection. It wasn’t just that she didn’t like me, or preferred this other little boy, but maybe I didn’t deserve the part, but why had I invested so completely in the little play?
The answer might be made clear by recalling how the fantasy of the Christmas party was created on Star Trek, or how the neural neutralizer supposedly worked.
Simon Van Gelder: Our minds so blank…so open…that any thought he placed there became our thoughts. Our minds so empty…like a sponge, needing thoughts, begging.
So lonely to be sitting there empty…wanting any word from him. Love? Yes. Hate? Yes. Live. Yes. Die. Yes. Such agony to be empty.
So the point here is that, for Derrida, there was no such thing as a neural neutralizer. No matter how powerful the setting on the blinking light he always held onto the possibility of there being some trace of something, something that couldn’t be neutralized or erased. But that trace, that part of an idea that or a word that has to be there in order for a thought or meaning to seem to be present, isn’t itself some thing. These Blinking Light Aliens aren’t really out there in the world, hidden away in underground fortresses or stored in plastic globes. The meanings of a show like Star Trek, meanings that seem easy and obvious, the meanings that allow us to think, they’re just the words we are speaking into this blinking light.
These meanings and all the contradictions that come along with them are really just our own actions. No matter how hard we try to act like geeks and just enjoy our lives, we can’t help creating Authors, Blinking Light Aliens, evil computers, Star Ship captains, and all manner of other ideas.
The trick, when watching Star Trek, is to recognize that the show is just a way we are talking and then to seize hold of words you can understand and use them to understand even more.
I am starting a new interview series on aesthetics and ethics in literature and art. In conjunction with the Marginalia on Radical Thinking on philosophy, theory, and politics as well as Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking on philosophy and science, all of my interests are covered. It will be moving the Loyal Opposition away from it’s nearly completely politico-philosophical focus to something that more reflects my interests and background.
Tyree Kimber is the author of From the Bedside Diary of Brisins DeMar and Apocalypse Woman both released by Dark Roast Press His work could be described as low fantasy, with magic being accomplished through considerable effort and only at crucial times. The stories themselves are largely set in the realm of Malanas where everyday life is heavily bound up with the Church of the god Aratricon: a faith which is genuinely benevolent, yet capable of the dire protective measures that only the truly benevolent are. Tyree and I have been in dialogue for a decade now, and he is person who reminds me that genre fiction can have an artistic flourish and somewhat serious ethical concerns. We also argue about religion and politics a lot. In this interview we discuss the theology underlining his fictional church, the ethical considerations of erotica, and Milton.
Skepoet: What do you do think is the moral core of your fiction?
Tyree Kimber: Asking if Apocalypse Woman has a moral core might amuse some fans of the work. It is, after all, a story full of explicit and unapologetic sexuality. To that end, I can simply say I am a fiction writer who writes entertainment. But to leave it at that would be disingenuous because the hallmark of the series is women and men who forsake conventional morality to forge their own path. I think the moral core lies in that nebulous place where the spiritual and the carnal meet and co-exist without anger. I think the stories admit the possibility that there are pure and wholesome things to be found in the desires of our bodies, and likewise that there are primal, fecund things to be found even in the unbending structures of dogmatic faith.
S.: Is it important for it to have a moral core?
T.K.: Do I think it is important for my work to have a moral core? I think it is important for me as an author to allow for the possibility of it for the reader. I want to encourage readers to ask questions about the issues the story raises if they want to, but to also be able to enjoy it just as a fun, sexy thrill ride if that’s more where their tastes lie.
S.: Are any of the problems of your characters seeking out a new structure on their own rooted in any of your own moral or personal developments?
T.K.: I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with organized religion. I believe in the reality of what it says exists but nevertheless balk at many of its claims, particularly at how sex-negative it can be when I am by nature a very sex-positive person. Apocalypse Woman was a fun way to explore tropes in religion that have been personal stumbling blocks for me and imagine what their effects might be in a world where they are not just matters of faith, but can have real and immediate supernatural consequences.
S.: What do you think is the root of organized religious sex-negativity?
T.K.: I think during the Axial Age – when much of the Bible was taking written form, Greek philosophy was on the rise, and Buddhism began to change the face of the East – people began asking necessary intellectual questions about religion. We are still asking these questions today. But it had the unintended side-effect of creating the impression that religion is more pure when it comes purely from the mind. We got into this mindset of mind = good, body = bad that has ebbed and flowed over the years and throughout various sects. It’s left us with a lingering abhorrence toward our own bodies and the things that are most natural to them.
I don’t hate the religions that have come down out of it by any means. I try to approach them with reverence and respect wherever it is due. But I’ve come to believe that their understanding of the truth isn’t as perfect as they claim. “God is too big for any one religion” may be a silly bumper sticker slogan, but I have come to believe that it is true.
S.: Why do you think that dualism has been maintained despite changing historical impetus because religions do shift, often quite dramatically, over time? Both Buddhism and Christianity are quite different now, almost entirely different, than they were a 1000 years ago, and we have almost no legitimate knowledge on what they were 2000 years ago.
T.K.: The cynical answer to why dualism is maintained and enforced would be because it empowers the authoritarian stance. “Do what I say or else end up like these guys who I don’t like.” While it has certainly been used for that, I don’t think it’s what lies at the core.
Historical impetus changes but humans have not changed much. We look to religion because we want something better. We recognize there are things in ourselves that can be quite terrible and it’s our natural inclination to personify. It’s hard to imagine a god that’s all-good. Even the most loving god gets accused of cruelty. But we can easily imagine gods and monsters that are all-bad. Our gods that oppose them often look more like us with all our flaws and vanity. But they oppose them in our name because someone has to, even if we don’t make sense of the job they do. How can they? It’s not like most of us can make sense of our own lives half the time.
Dualism is inevitable because we need to believe our choices matter, even if there are only two of them and one is obviously wrong. The Haborym, the fallen angels of the Apocalypse Woman world, rebelled because they were outraged at mortals being given free will. It suddenly made them stop trusting all the positive feelings they had toward their Creator because those feelings were not their own. They’ll tell you up front that their intentions toward the human race are not good but but they think they have honesty about it that Aratricon lacks and thus are the better guys. Abryax is the main Haborym we come to know through the storyline and he is very much a Miltonian satanic figure who would rather choose to reign in hell than be made to serve in heaven.
S.: How much Miltonic theology do you see as lingering in your work?
T.K.: I think it speaks volumes to Milton’s skill as a fiction writer that he wrote a work of entertainment and people think it *is* theology. Milton’s work asks some great questions and really challenges the reader to step out of their spiritual comfort zone, but so do Anne Rice and Clive Barker and there’s just as much of their influence in my stories as well. Milton makes too great a starting point for a fallen angel’s potential mindset for me to not use it. But I tried to just use it as a starting point and not let it overshadow the work.
S.: What do you make of Milton’s attempt to undo the “infernalism” in his Paradise Lost in his later books? It seems like Mitlon was out of his own spiritual confront zone.
T.K.: He might well have been. It’s a common pitfall of artists, writers in particular, that you create something that’s a smash hit but isn’t representative of your usual work or gets you accused of advocating something personall that you don’t, and then you spend the rest of your artistic career trying to downplay it. Or he could genuinely have had second thoughts about it after the fact. Paradise Lost is a work that’s challenged a lot of people. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t challenge its creator as well.
S.: Have you written something that hit you in your own moral or political gut? By that, I mean, have you ever scared yourself?
T.K.: Apocalypse Woman has brought me two types of scary moments, the ones that come during and after the fact. The after-the-fact ones are pretty wild. In communicating with readers I’ve been surprised to learn that frequently they wind up wanting Abryax to win. In my mind I thought I’d made it clear that he was the bad guy and not someone we should want to emulate but readers completely love everything about him. That leaves me to wonder if I failed completely as a writer or if I in fact succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.
The moments I genuinely scare myself during writing are fewer. They can be pretty harrowing because you’re having that scared reaction yet you don’t stop doing the thing that’s making you have it, i.e. writing. There’s One particular scene in the first novel where Abryax sets up the notion that God has tricked people into thinking that desire is like sharp rocks that you break yourself on, and later, how miracles are actually God panicking at doing something God himself didn’t expect. I had to stop for a moment while writing that scene. I was like “Whoah, this is some dark stuff. I didn’t know I felt that way!”
S.: Has dealing with such theological issues let to any backlash?
T.K.: Honestly I’m not big enough on anyone’s radar right now to have to deal with it. In the years since I began this story I’ve had a negative reaction from exactly one person. Keep in mind that the genre I’m classified under has already seen its share of sexy angels and demons alongside the sexy vampires and werewolves. Erotica is finally edging its way toward the mainstream but I think the general public still doesn’t really know what to do with us. So they just kind of shake their heads and go on. Right now I’m fortunate enough to be in a very selective niche and the people who are likely to take an interest in my work are the kind of people seeking the same experience in erotic writing that I was when I began my work. I’m okay with that. If someone wants to take me to task for writing about carnal lust in the setting of a fictional church I’ll meet them head on but it’s not what I got into this to do.
S.: Do you think your work in erotica will have any affect on other creative output?
T.K.: I don’t think it has any kind of effect on my creative output personally. I can switch gears pretty easily to topics that are nothing like erotica and that’s an ability I’m glad to have. Professionally I’m not too worried about stigma. Erotica is a long way from being “respectable” but I think genre authors have a lot of leeway with it. Then you have novels like those of George R.R. Martin or Richelle Mead with her Dark Swan novels where the sex scenes are frequent and graphic enough that it blurs into erotica territory without actually donning the name. What’s interesting for me is that now that I have the erotica outlet the love scenes in my other stories are less graphic.
S.: What do you think are the moral considerations an erotica author must consider?
T.K.: I could easily answer this with an accurate-despite-its-blandness statement like “just be true to yourself.” But when we have “Fifty Shades Of Grey” out there serving as erotica’s most successful push into the mainstream while simultaneously raising an outcry over inaccurate depictions of the BDSM subculture I think we could stand to evaluate our moral imperatives a bit closer.
A friend of mine once said she preferred erotica to porn on the basis that she likes naked people to be happy, not exploited. It was a statement that has stuck with me. The moral imperative that I follow in my erotica writing is that I want there to be joy and intimacy between people. Yeah, I write about some really dark things but at the heart of it all I want sex to be a thing of joy and wonder for the reader. I wouldn’t feel like I had behaved morally if I’d sent the message that it’s okay to go out and bone whomever you like and not care about them. But if I get lovers to engage each other and become more comfortable in their own skins, then I’ll feel like I have.
S.: Do you currently have a writing project?
T.K.: I have been working on the Apocalypse Woman sequel forever now. I keep getting distracted by short stories I want to tell in that universe, and I may just wind up letting the continuation of the story gel in that format for a while. Either way, there will be new Apocalypse Woman material of some for before the end of this year. It will most likely be a short story or two.
I am also working on a mainstream science fiction project that deals with the resurgence of Nazi-ism in a post-apocalyptic setting. That’s been my baby for a while now. You might say I got sidetracked from it with erotica, but I do not regret the diversion at all.
S.: Any thing you’d like to say in closing?
T.K.: Just that I think the erotica writing community is an interesting place to be right now and a fun one. It’s exciting to be involved in it during a time of such growth and opportunity. I don’t where it’s going to go next. I don’t even know where I’m going to go next within it but I’m really looking forward to finding out.
There are two trends dominant in academic discussions about the humanities that I find problematic, if not outright repellent. The “thin” move of the likes of E.O. Wilson and Sam Harris to claim that sense some notion of the aesthetic is evolutionary, then all that needs to be said can be said in terms of biology. The other notion is that of those of the post-Althusserian school who deny any “natural” category and subsume it all to ideology: there is “no human nature,” “no species being,” and no aesthetic categories. Both frankly are power-plays more than legitimate thinking: the later removes any empirical check to any artistic claim, while being “thick” it is also essentially putting all power in the realm of those philosophers of suspicion. The former is thin, and places power in terms of biology, but it’s claim could be said of to be even MORE foundationally true of physics. But no one would expect an electro-magnetic analysis of paint to be able to stand for all that is usefully said about art or literature, so the move seems again to suspiciously favor the field of those who make them.
The truth of the matter is probably much harder as there is no reason to assume the validity of parsimony: both biological and ideological limits exist, mediate our views, and contort our notions of truth and possibility. Both the biological and the ideological shift throughout history and change our notions of art and even of self. Yet neither can could be said to be solely determinate. The thick and thin are both necessary descriptors as the biological world is real as is the ideological world, and both are limits and as limits determine thoughts, but neither are solely determinate nor do I see evidence they they completely subordinate the will in any way. A limit is not a cause, and even a cause is not necessarily the sole cause.